Dr. Helga Thorson of the University of Victoria. (photo from uvic.ca)
The University of Victoria unveiled its Stories of the Holocaust: Local Memory and Transmission exhibit – a project that was part of a combined undergraduate and graduate seminar on Holocaust and memory studies – during an online launch on April 15.
The exhibit is the result of a collaborative effort. Ten community members, comprising Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors, from Vancouver, Victoria and Salt Spring Island, were paired with 10 UVic students to present wide-ranging and diverse stories from the Shoah in a context both personal and relevant to future Holocaust education.
“Students worked one-on-one with a community partner to figure out the best way to tell each story. This, as they discovered, was no easy task,” said UVic professor Dr. Helga Thorson, the course’s instructor. The students had to learn new technological skills, go over an extensive reading list and develop interpersonal skills, which included “relationship-building and the ethical dilemmas that come into play when telling somebody’s story that is not your own.”
“The engagement and involvement of the 10 students, who took the class assignment seriously, will go a long way in helping us remember the Shoah and the story passed on by their community partner,” said Thorson. “Remembering the past also helps us reflect on the present and what this means for us in today’s world as we continue to grapple with antisemitism, racism and other forms of violence, hatred and injustice.”
Ireland Good, one of the students involved in the project, thanked the Jewish community members for “their courage and their trust in us to tell their stories and to create this exhibit. I have thoroughly enjoyed this experience,” said Good, “even with its low moments, as I am sure it is with all the other students.”
The stories represent varied experiences, including having hid in order to survive and having been sent to a Soviet gulag. They come from Hinda Avery, Lillian Boraks-Nemetz, Rudolf Deman, Ilserl Fränkel, Julius Maslovat, Micha Menczer, Isa Milman, Fred Preuss, Claire Sicherman and Hester Waas.
Maslovat was the youngest prisoner ever at Buchenwald, and he is the subject of a recent film, Why Am I Here?: A Child’s Journey Through the Holocaust. The day of the launch, April 15, had a special significance for Maslovat, as it marked the 76th anniversary of his liberation from Bergen-Belsen. He was just under 3 years old at the time.
“My story did not come to me in a neat package. There were people who knew parts of it and contributed. Other parts I had to dig out of archives in Israel, Germany, Sweden, Britain, Poland, U.S. and Finland. I have tried to tell my story by putting together the pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. This time, I have included material I have not spoken about before,” said Maslovat, explaining his contribution to the archive.
“Despite what people may think about Holocaust survivors writing their memoir or speaking about their experience, we are not navel-gazing,” said writer Boraks-Nemetz, who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto and lived in hiding. “We who have stared into the abyss of the atrocity that was the Shoah can never erase it from our memories. When I speak about my experience, I always think of the survivors and the victims, of the injustice wrought by a madman who destroyed lives – lives of children, of my little 5-year-old sister, who was brutally murdered for being a Jewish child … of the 1.5 million children who needlessly died.”
Boraks-Nemetz continues to explore the personal and broader impacts of the Holocaust through recent works, the novel Mouth of Truth and a collection of poetry, Out of the Dark.
Dr. Richard Kool is the son of Waas, who hid in the Netherlands during the war. He spoke of the importance of conveying the story to future generations. “I’ve really understood that, as Hester’s child and the oldest of my siblings, I have a responsibility as a carrier of a message that helps me keep looking forward towards recipients, towards recipients who have more life in front of them than behind, recipients who may not even be alive yet,” he said.
“We, the survivors and their children, must look forward and consider the powerful message for future individuals and generations,” he added. “Messages that say, ‘Don’t wallow in despair, worry and victimhood, but act, now, to do what you can with the tools at your disposal and the people around you to help co-create a fairer, healthier, more just, more peaceful community and society.’”
The belief in far-fetched plots is not a new phenomenon. There have always been people who gravitate towards and embrace conspiracy theories. In a Feb. 18 talk, hosted by the Jewish Community Centre of Victoria, University of Victoria history professor Dr. Simon Devereaux focused on “the golden age of conspiracy thinking,” highlighting various false intrigues of the latter half of the 20th century.
According to Devereaux, there are three principal elements to conspiracy theories that give them persuasive power among their adherents: big events must have big causes; no big event is random or accidental and must, therefore, be the result of a sinister and nebulous group’s intents or actions; and the most complicated explanation must, by its nature, be the correct explanation.
In his talk – entitled Conspiracy Thinking: A Rational Guide to Thinking Irrationally – Devereaux gave the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy as an example of “commensurate scale,” the need to equate consequential events with convoluted background planning. A 1992 letter to the New York Times by historian William Manchester was cited as both an explanation of and a counter to this tendency: “if you put the murdered president of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif [Lee Harvey] Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the president’s death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something. A conspiracy would, of course, do the job nicely. Unfortunately, there is no evidence whatever that there was one.”
Devereaux then debunked many of the arguments employed by conspiracy theorists as reasons for why Kennedy might have been killed, including the belief that the young president was prepared to keep the United States out of Vietnam. He argued that Kennedy was a “hawkish” president who had the same secretaries of state and defence as his successor, President Lyndon Johnson.
On segueing into his second point – the inability of conspiracy theorists to accept that big events can happen randomly – Devereaux explained, “conspiracy thinkers ultimately want to believe that the world is an orderly place in which individuals are capable of keeping events under control. They don’t want to believe that the world is a sometimes chaotic place in which deeply upsetting events can happen for no apparent reason. It must, therefore, follow that some superlatively powerful group of individuals must be the directive force behind all events of enormous human significance.”
Growing disenchantment in the late 20th century of the nation state as a power to do good compounded the problem. As the United States lurched deeper into the ethical morass of Vietnam, Western governments, which were often seen as solutions to societal ills, with such programs as the 1930s New Deal, were no longer viewed as virtuous. The Watergate scandal of the mid-1970s, too, contributed to the increasingly held notion that people in government may be inherently corrupt.
Economically, the OPEC crisis and stagflation of the 1970s further demonstrated the “sad proof that government could not ensure that postwar prosperity could last forever,” and led to the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the distrustful neoconservative view of government, which continues to the present, said Devereaux.
“It is more consoling to think that there is someone in control, even if their intentions and purposes are entirely evil, rather than think there is no good explanation for the terrible things that sometimes befall us,” Devereaux argued.
To conspiracy theorists, the more elaborate and bizarre the assertions of conspiracies, the more compelling the argument. They are wont to believe, said Devereaux, that an unconventional approach to seeking answers is the right approach, and are dismissive of any reasoned proposition that runs counter to their argument.
“It is a world of amateur knowledge refusing to accept the world of professional knowledge. Any pattern of systematic, analytical thinking embodied, for instance, in a university, entails conventions,” he said.
To a conspiracy thinker, university professors represent people who are controlled; academics cannot say or do certain things without incurring professional censure. A common aspect of conspiracy thinking is to “trust no one,” i.e., “do not accept any conventional form of received wisdom.”
The rejection of conventional wisdom fuels their notions of being braver and deeper thinkers than others, as only they can follow the elaborate and frequently ludicrous connections of the conspiracy, said Devereaux. Thus, a conspiracy appeals to their intellectual vanity – they believe they are sharing hidden knowledge, therein fostering the idea that they are smarter than everyone else by not falling prey to “fake” mainstream news. Paradoxically, according to Devereaux, the more gullible the conspiracy believers, the more intelligent they think they are.
In his concluding remarks, Devereaux pointed out that there have been numerous conspiracies throughout history. However, most were either limited in their scope or inept, or both. Somewhere along the way, human nature ruins the plot; someone leaves the group, exposes the operation, or bungles the job.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
University of Victoria’s Prof. Dan Russek spoke about Jewish writers in Argentina and Mexico, as well as Jorge Luis Borges’ Jewish-related writings. (photo from Dan Russek)
Dan Russek spoke on 20th-century Latin American writers, both Jewish and those who have been influenced by Jewish themes, at a Jan. 10 Zoom event organized by Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria.
Entitled The Golem Dances the Tango, the talk began with discussion of four Jewish authors – Alberto Gerchunoff and Ana Maria Shua of Argentina and Margo Glantz and Myriam Moscona of Mexico – before examining Argentine Jorge Luis Borges’ Jewish-related writings.
Gerchunoff (1883-1950) painted an idealized version of Jewish life in the Argentine countryside in his writings, with religious Jews as peasant farmers in a new land, explained Russek, an associate professor in the University of Victoria’s department of Hispanic and Italian studies.
In his best-known work, The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, a series of vignettes, “Gerchunoff was keen to find parallels between peasant life in Argentina and the Bible, and explore the interaction between Jews and the local residents,” Russek said. In one story, El Episodio de Myriam, a Jewish girl from a pious family elopes with a non-Jewish boy, causing uproar in the community.
Shua represents a more modern writer, less attached to traditions, said Russek. In her 1994 novel The Book of Memories, an anonymous narrator tells the story of the Rimetka family. “Gossip reigns supreme in this fictionalized account of a family. One feels as though we are witnessing a family dinner, perhaps a seder,” Russek explained. The narrator presents different and sometimes contradictory accounts, he said, creating a “series of foibles and misadventures with no end.”
Mexico’s Glantz incorporates much of her family story into her most-recognized book, The Genealogies, published in 1981. The daughter of immigrants from Ukraine, her father, Jacobo Glantz, was a promoter of Jewish intellectual life in Mexico, and once penned a poem about Christopher Columbus in Yiddish.
The Genealogies “is a form of literature as transcription and personal document,” Russek said. “It is a family story centred on her parents and her own coming of age. In Glantz, we see an adoption of Jewish culture but not of Jewish faith nor a strong sense of belonging.”
Moscona, a poet, journalist and translator, was the most contemporary writer of the four. Born in Mexico City to Ladino-speaking Bulgarian immigrants, her autobiographic novel Tela de sevoya explores her quest to find her cultural and linguistic heritage.
Russek then discussed Borges, a Judeophile who had several Jewish friends, from his time studying in Geneva, as well as literary mentors, such as Baruch Spinoza and Franz Kafka. Borges credited his English Protestant grandmother for providing a passion for Israel through a love of the Bible, and recognized Judaism as a pillar of Western Civilization.
In 1934, early in his literary life, Borges wrote an article called “I, A Jew,” which was a defence against an attack from a fascist magazine accusing him of hiding his Jewishness. In it, Borges says he would not mind at all being Jewish.
Borges lauded Israel in his poetry. In his 1969 collection In Praise of Darkness, he views Israel as a place that transcends Jewish history and the stereotypes associated with Jews. Two of the poems were written after the Six Day War and herald Israeli heroism on the battlefield.
In “Israel, 1969,” Borges writes, “You shall forget your parents’ tongue and learn the tongue of Paradise. / You shall be an Israeli. / You shall be a soldier. / You shall build the homeland with swamps, you shall erect it in deserts.”
Jewish characters and themes appear in “The Secret Miracle” and “The Death and the Compass.” And Borges had an abiding interest in kabbalah, which is documented in his essays and lectures. About his story El Aleph, Borges wrote: “In the kabbalah, that letter [aleph] signifies the En Soph, the pure and unlimited godhead; it has also been said that its shape is that of a man pointing to the sky and the earth, to indicate that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher.”
Russek concluded with Borges’ poem “The Golem,” from the 1964 book El otro, el mismo. “Despite the logical structure of the poem, the theme deals with magic, myth and religion. The main philosophical/theological subject is the relationship between the creator and its creatures,” Russek said.
Russek is the author of Textual Exposures: Photography in 20th-Century Latin American Narrative Fiction and the upcoming Exercises in Urban Mysticism, a book of illustrated poetic prose. He coordinates Victoria’s annual Latin American and Spanish Film Week at Cinecinta.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Gilad Seliktar, left, and Rolf Kamp in Amsterdam. They are drawing the last hiding place of Nico and Rolf Kamp in Achterveld, which was liberated in April 1945 by Canadian troops. (photo from UVic)
A University of Victoria professor is orchestrating an international project that links Holocaust survivors with professional illustrators to create a series of graphic novels, thereby bringing the stories of the Shoah to new generations.
Charlotte Schallié, a Holocaust historian and the current chair of UVic’s department of Germanic and Slavic studies, is leading the initiative, which connects four survivors living in the Netherlands, Israel and Canada with accomplished graphic novelists from three continents.
The project, called Narrative Art and Visual Storytelling in Holocaust and Human Rights Education, is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Its aim is to teach about racism, antisemitism, human rights and social justice while shedding more light on one of the darkest times in human history.
UVic is partnering with several organizations in the project, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
Many historians of the genre have argued that the rise of graphic novels as a serious medium of expression is largely due to the commercial success of Art Spiegelman’s Maus in 1986. Maus, the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, depicts recollections of Spiegelman’s father, a Shoah survivor, with Jews portrayed as mice, Germans as cats and Poles as pigs.
Schallié told the Independent that the idea for the project came from observing the interest her 13-year-old son has in graphic novels and the appeal Maus has had among her students, who have continually selected it as one of the most poignant and memorable materials in her classes.
“Though a graphic novel, Maus could hardly be accused of treating the events of the Holocaust frivolously,” she said from her office on the campus of the University of Victoria.
As most survivors are now octogenarians and nonagenarians, the passage of time creates an ever more compelling need to tell their stories as soon as possible.
“Given the advanced age of survivors, the project takes on an immediate urgency,” said Schallié. “And what makes their participation especially meaningful is that each of them continues to be a social justice activist well into their 80s and 90s. They are role models for the integration of learning about the Shoah and broader questions of human rights protection.”
The visual nature of a graphic novel allows it to bring in elements or depict scenes that are not possible with an exclusively written work, according to Schallié. A person may describe an event in writing but leave out aspects of a scene that might add more to the sense of what it was like to be there at the time.
One of the survivors participating in the project, David Schaffer, 89, lives in Vancouver. He is paired with American-Israeli comic artist Miriam Libicki, who is also based in the city. The two met in person in early January so that Libicki could learn the story of how he survived the Holocaust as a child in Romania.
In 1941, Schaffer was forcibly sent with his family to Transnistria, on the border of present-day Moldova and Ukraine, by cattle car. There, they suffered starvation and were subjected to intolerable and inhumane living conditions.
“The most important thing is to share the story with the general population so they realize what happened and to avoid it happening again. It’s very simple. History has a habit of repeating itself,” said Schaffer.
Libicki, who was the Vancouver Public Library’s Writer in Residence in 2017, is the creator of jobnik!, a series of graphic comics about a summer she spent in the Israeli military. An Emily Carr University of Art + Design graduate, she also published a collection of essays on what is means to be Jewish, Toward a Hot Jew. (See jewishindependent.ca/drawing-on-identity-judaism.)
“The more stories, the better. The wiser we can be as people, the more informed we can be as citizens and the more empathy we can have for each other,” Libicki said. “Graphic novels are not just a document in the archives; they’re something people will be drawn to reading.”
The other illustrators are Barbara Yelin, a graphic artist living in Germany, and Gilad Seliktar, who is based in Israel. Yelin is the recipient of a number of prizes for her work, including the Max & Moritz Prize for best German-language comic artist in 2016. Seliktar has illustrated dozens of books – from publications for children to adult graphic novels – and his drawings frequently appear in leading Israeli newspapers and magazines.
Brothers Nico and Rolf Kamp in Amsterdam and Emmie Arbel in Kiryat Tiv’on, Israel, are the other three survivors who are providing their accounts of the Holocaust.
The books will be available digitally in 2022. A hard copy version of each book is planned, as well. When finished, the graphic novels will be accompanied by teachers guides and instructional material designed for schools in Canada, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.
UVic hopes to match a larger number of survivors with professional illustrators in the future. To learn more, contact Schallié at [email protected]. You can also visit the project’s website at holocaustgraphicnovels.org.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Honourary degree recipient Robert Waisman, centre, is congratulated by University of Victoria chancellor Shelagh Rogers as UVic president Jamie Cassels, right, applauds. (photo from UVic Photo Services)
The Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre extends a mazal tov to board director and longtime volunteer Robert (Robbie) Waisman, who received the degree of honourary doctor of laws from the University of Victoria on June 13.
Waisman was one of the “Boys of Buchenwald” before he was liberated from the concentration camp, eventually emigrating to a new life in Canada, where he built a successful career and now dedicates himself to Holocaust education. He is a community leader, a philanthropist, a founder and past president of the VHEC, and an extremely effective educator who promotes social justice and human rights for all by sharing his experience as a child survivor.
Audiences impacted by Waisman’s VHEC outreach activities include thousands of British Columbian students each year, as well as students and community groups throughout Canada and the United States. He has served as a mentor to survivors of the Rwandan genocide who were wanting to share their eyewitness accounts. Also notable, Waisman was inducted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an Honourary Witness in 2011, and has spoken alongside First Nations leaders and survivors of residential schools about reconciliation and healing.
Dedicated teacher, outstanding volunteer, loving daughter, sister and wife, Jewish National Fund of Canada Bernard M. Bloomfield Medal for meritorious service recipient Ilene-Jo Bellas can be called a “Woman for All Seasons.”
A retired high school teacher, Bellas taught English and theatre arts for 32 years in the Delta School District. She directed more than 100 popular plays and musicals at Delta Secondary School in Ladner. Many of her students have graduated to become successful actors, writers, directors and educators, and they keep in touch with their first teacher/director. She was president of the Association of B.C. Drama Educators, and was instrumental in procuring funding for and in the designing of Genesis Theatre, a fully professional theatre in Ladner.
Bellas was born and raised in Vancouver. She attended Sir Winston Churchill High School and Schara Tzedeck Synagogue Religious School. She developed her strong community commitment through youth activities in Young Judaea, Camp Hatikvah, Camp Biluim and working as a camp counselor. In university, she was involved in the Student Zionist Organization and held leadership roles in Hillel. She became a charter member and eventually president of Atid chapter of Hadassah-WIZO Vancouver; she also served as the Vancouver council vice-president.
Since her retirement in 2003, Bellas has used her many talents and skills to serve her community: three years as secretary of the Jewish Seniors Alliance, four years on the board of the Louis Brier Home and Hospital and president of the ladies’ executive of the Richmond Country Club. She also directed musical shows at Vancouver Talmud Torah, produced souvenir books, chaired and worked on dinner committees for Congregation Schara Tzedeck, Vancouver Talmud Torah, Israel Bonds and the JNF. In 2013, Bellas and her husband Joel, z’l, were awarded the Betzalel Award at Schara Tzedeck Synagogue. Most recently, she chaired a very successful fundraising gala for RAPS (Regional Animal Protection Society).
Bellas served as president of JNF Pacific Region from 2012 to 2015. She remains active to this day, continuing as a board member, chairing and co-chairing Negev Dinner committees and producing the souvenir books. Bellas is on the national board of JNF and states that she is very proud to be part of such a proactive organization for the benefit of the state of Israel.
Bellas attributes much of the success of her stellar volunteer career to the loving support and encouragement she received from her beloved husband Joel, z’l.
Hebrew University of Jerusalem is known for innovation. With nine Nobel Prize and Fields Medal winners among its alumni and being ranked 12th in the world for biotechnology patent filings, there is an abundance of creativity and ingenuity emanating from the university. It should come as no surprise then that the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University (CFHU) co-convened a fundraising event honouring cardiologist Dr. Saul Isserow on June 28. Hosted by CFHU and VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation in the Landmark Aviation Hangar at YVR, the casual-chic event – which sold out just weeks after it was announced – hosted a capacity crowd of 500-plus people.
The huge walls of the hangar were draped and a lighting and sound system had been installed along with a cabana that was a full-service bar. There were five food stations, including one serving South African specialties. One wall of the hangar was open to the runway and a private jet was on display to top off the evening’s decor.
Among other things, Isserow is director of the Vancouver General Hospital Centre for Cardiovascular Health, director of cardiology services at University of British Columbia Hospital and medical director of Sports Cardiology B.C.
“It’s not in my nature to be fêted in this way,” said Isserow in his address, stressing that the evening was intended to be a fun night to celebrate the achievements of the cardiac team with whom he works, as well as his heartfelt support and love for the state of Israel.
There were more than three million reasons for celebration by the end of the night – to be exact, $3,046,350 was raised to support two initiatives. The money will be divided between CFHU’s Inspired by Einstein student scholarship program and, locally, Isserow’s Sports Cardiology B.C. program at UBC Hospital. Barbara Grantham, chief executive officer of the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation expressed her gratitude to Isserow for agreeing to be honoured at this event. She said Isserow is a humble man who works tirelessly for his patients and credits his team for his successes.
A short video tribute to Isserow and his journey from South Africa to Canada revealed that he and his wife, Lindsay, began their lives in Canada in Nipawin, Sask. His journey from rural Saskatchewan to the upper echelon of Vancouver’s cardiology community is a testament to his talent and perseverance.
In addition to Grantham and Isserow, CFHU national board chair Monette Malewski gave brief remarks, which were followed by a performance by the Emily Chambers band while dinner was served. The crowd was treated to a short African drumming performance prior to a brief address by Ambassador Ido Aharoni, who spoke about the strong connection between the principles of Hebrew University founding member Albert Einstein and Hebrew U’s function as a launch pad for creative innovation in all areas. After Isserow addressed the group, the evening was rounded off with a DJ and dancing.
For the past few years, Richmond Jewish Day School’s Student Council committee has been collecting donations to support different charities throughout the Lower Mainland. As part of their ongoing fundraising, the school was able to donate $1,150 to the Variety Club Sunshine Coach program and the school’s name was recently inscribed on the side of a 15-passenger Sunshine Coach, which will be used by Richmond Society for Community Living. The vehicle will transport youth with diverse abilities to various programs throughout the city.
Last month, several Canadians – or former Canadians – attended the 50th anniversary of Hadassim Children and Youth Village in Israel. Reunion organizer Rabbi Shawn Zell and the other attendees were among the first young Diaspora Jews to spend a year in Israel on a sponsored program – in their case, one organized by Canadian Hadassah-WIZO.
On Remembrance Day, pro-Nazi posters were discovered at War Memorial Gym on the University of British Columbia campus. The posters depicted Nazi soldiers with the words “Lest we forget / The true heroes of WWII.”
This incident followed the discovery earlier in the week of antisemitic drawings on a chalkboard in the forestry faculty. Rabbi Philip Bregman, executive director of Hillel BC, sent an email to the community thanking the Forestry Undergraduate Society for making a clear statement of solidarity. While this is the good news, he wrote, there is also bad news. Students are reporting that the latest incidents are a “tip of the iceberg” of similar expressions and depictions that go unreported.
Earlier this month, white supremacist and antisemitic posters also appeared at the University of Victoria. “(((Those))) who hate us / Will not replace us,” read a poster. The use of triple parentheses is a method used online to identify Jews. The fear of white people being “replaced” by non-white people is a recurring theme in the white supremacist movement.
These incidents are local iterations of a larger and obviously deeply troubling phenomenon occurring worldwide. In part a response to the movement of refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, far-right groups in Europe have grown significantly in recent years. This is evident in the horrifying rally of an estimated 60,000 neo-Nazis, hyper-nationalists and racists in Warsaw, Poland, last weekend. And it is underscored by the neutrality or even affirming noises from those in positions of power at the sight of ralliers carrying signs urging “Clean blood,” “Pray for an Islamic holocaust” and “Jews out of Poland.”
Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party has informal connections with some of the extremist groups that organized Saturday’s rally. Poland’s foreign ministry, on the one hand, condemned the xenophobic, antisemitic and racist messaging, but, on the other hand, called the event “a great celebration of Poles.” The country’s interior minister called the rallying extremists “a beautiful sight.”
This sort of equivocation from leaders is perhaps as worrying, or more so, than the rallying mobs themselves. While the past year has seen numerous European far-right parties fail to live up to expectations in elections, their strength is nevertheless very concerning.
On the subject of elections … off-year elections in the United States last week delivered a strong rebuke to the U.S. president. Although polls indicate that 36% of American voters would vote for him again, no president in the history of polling has been this unpopular this early in his mandate. This is, perhaps, a sign that most Americans are turning against the divisiveness and xenophobia that this president advances.
Encouraging as that may be, possibly (wishfully) portending his defeat in 2020, the damage he is doing to the civil fabric of the country is incalculable. It is saddening to see the president of the United States overtly promote racism against Mexicans and people from Muslim-majority countries, threatening one group with a wall and the other with a travel ban that has been repeatedly deemed unconstitutional by the courts. Among his supporters are openly racist and white supremacist activists.
All of this is to say that the world is experiencing a time of extremism. Rather than throw up our hands in despair, this is a time to rededicate ourselves to the values that motivate us, the values for which Canadian and other Allied soldiers fought.
The posters at B.C. universities should be enough to sweep away any complacency we may have about our shores being free from this sort of racist ideology. This is a good thing. Canadians have a right to be proud of our comparatively decent record of multicultural harmony, but smugness is a blinder that can allow us to ignore very real undercurrents. We must be vigilant in calling out evil ideology when we see it at home and abroad.
On Nov. 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a swastika and “Heil Hitler” were found written on a hallway blackboard in the University of British Columbia Forest Sciences Centre. The antisemitic graffiti was first reported to Hillel BC, who then contacted security.
This was one of several racist incidents that have occurred on B.C. campuses and across Canada in recent months, including pro-Nazi posters found at UBC on Remembrance Day. On Halloween night and in the days following, posters reading, “It’s okay to be white,” appeared on several Canadian university campuses, apparently based on instructions from a post which Vice Canada traced to the anonymous online forum 4Chan, a hub for the alt-right.
During the same week, antisemitic posters found at the University of Victoria read, “Those who hate us will not replace us. Defend Canadian heritage. Fight back against anti-white hatred. A message from the alt-right.” The word “those” was placed in triple parenthesis, a way of identifying Jews. When the posters were taken down, moderators of Anti-racist Action UVic Facebook page and others reportedly received a backlash of hateful messages online.
The election of Donald Trump one year ago this month is widely perceived as a triumph for the tangle of white supremacists, antisemites, misogynists, racists and ethno-nationalists who have come to be called the “alt-right.” In Kill All Normies, a book about the genesis of the group, journalist Angela Nagle describes an online world where cynicism, irony and absurd in-joke humour have combined with racism and misogyny to produce a “taboo-breaking anti-PC style” that has come to characterize the alt-right. Since then, the movement has tapped into latent racism and xenophobia, bolstered by the rise of people like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos.
Not everyone is happy with the use of the term “alt-right.” Given their white supremacist beliefs, “alt-right” is somewhat innocuous. The Associated Press avoids the term because its editors think it downplays the movement’s racist goals.
Long before the 2016 election, the alt-right was gathering strength and allies. Trump granted the racists among his supporters visibility, lowering the social costs of bigotry and inspiring these supporters with a hope that their vision of “white identitarianism” could come to rule America once again. This has emboldened them and brought them out of the shadows.
In the days following the election of Trump, Canada saw a spate of vandalism, hate speech and pamphleteering directed against Jews and other minorities. As in the United States, this did not come to Canada overnight. In 2015, the CBC temporarily closed all online comments on stories featuring First Nations people because of the “staggering number of hateful and vitriolic comments” posted. In August 2016, the premier of Saskatchewan was forced to issue a plea for an end to hate speech following the second-degree murder of an aboriginal man on a farm. As a result, his own Facebook page was flooded with racist messages.
The posters at UVic were discovered by an anti-racist group on campus organized by Tyson Strandlund, who said the increasing activities of the alt-right in the public sphere are what led to his group’s creation in September. Strandlund said there has been heightened concern on campus since last summer, when an art installation meant to inspire conversations about resistance to racism was instead extensively defaced with racist slurs and had to be dismantled. He mentioned a meeting that was to take place in the Student Union Building on Nov. 15, for students and others to discuss anti-racist strategies.
David Blades, president of the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island, said they are “keeping close tabs” on the alt-right movement. “We have a good sense of who these people are,” he told the Independent. “What’s increasing is their public activity, not their numbers, which have remained pretty stable for years.
“Nevertheless,” he warned, “we have to be vigilant because they are also recruiting. There is no question that there is latent racism in Canadian society and it can be tapped into. My concern is that this was not isolated to the University of Victoria, this also happened at the University of Alberta and elsewhere. It was a coordinated national event. That’s my concern as Federation president. This is a shift in the overall organization of this group.”
Blades said he is “really happy with the response of UVic” and that there are plans in the works for “five days of activism against racism.”
“In some ways,” he said, “these incidents have been more effective at inspiring the opposite of what they intended: an increase in anti-racist activism.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
The Post-Survivor Exhibit in Mystic Market, one of the busiest spots on campus. (photo by Chorong Kim)
The following remarks have been modified from the original address given during Hillel Victoria’s Second Annual Holocaust Awareness Presentation during Holocaust Awareness Week, which took place at the University of Victoria Jan. 25-29.
When my co-organizer, Dr. Kristin Semmens in the history department at the University of Victoria, and I embarked on planning Holocaust Awareness Week, we decided to put a call out for poster submissions to include in the Post-Survivor Exhibit to be publicly displayed in Mystic Market, one of the busiest spots on campus. The aim was to feature personal stories of post-survivors – UVic students who are descendants of Holocaust survivors – and we welcomed submissions from survivors of other genocides and atrocities. We thought that, between all the Jewish students and the diverse student body, we would be overflowing with submissions and would struggle to select 20 stories to include in the exhibit. As it turned out, our struggle was to get any submissions at all. Why am I sharing with you our experience of failed expectations? Well, it’s quite simple. This has been a learning experience for us, just as much as it has been for the students we approached to participate in the exhibit.
Many of the Jewish students said they knew very little about their grandparents or their survival story, and felt they didn’t have enough to write personal reflections about it. I was coming from the point of the view that you can write about “not having enough to write about” and attribute that to the implications of being a descendant of a survivor and the negative effects of post-Holocaust syndrome (a form of transferable post-traumatic stress disorder). Others didn’t want to share their story in public and recommended that we ask people to submit anonymously; some were too scared to be identified as Jews on campus. Both Kristin and I were not surprised by the reasons we received but, as advocates of Holocaust awareness and education, we thought the students could overcome their fear and disassociation from their family’s past.
As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors from Poland (and today Belarus) on my mother’s side and a granddaughter of interned Japanese-Canadians on my father’s side, I can tell you that there are two types of survivors. Those who talk and those who don’t. My maternal safta (grandmother) spoke about the Holocaust and would tell everyone that the only reason she survived was because of her blond hair and blue eyes, whereas, my other three grandparents chose to never talk about what happened to them. So much so, that my Japanese bachan and gichan (grandmother and grandfather) completely abandoned their Japanese heritage and opted to raise their children with English names and, tragically, my maternal saba (grandfather) couldn’t even recall the names or faces of his murdered first wife and baby girl. That’s how he dealt with his past.
I only know about my histories because I wanted to know about them and I asked questions. That got me thinking, how can I ask students to write about their stories if they haven’t gone through this process of asking yet? And who am I to pressure them to do so? I know now that I may have asked too much of the students. Perhaps we are not as ready as I thought to share our stories, let alone share them collectively as an international community.
I thank the handful of students who did send in poster submissions for their bravery in sharing their stories. Each one was on a different page in their personal journey to coping and understanding their family or nation’s past. Some already knew all the details while others had to ask their families for help in obtaining old photographs and putting all the bits and pieces of their grandparents’ stories together into one cohesive personal reflection. One of my students wrote to me on Facebook, “I just found out a ton of information that I didn’t know before, and I’m still kind of processing it”; another texted me saying that, although they have decided not to submit a story, this has started a personal desire to find out more about their family’s history. Coming to terms with the past is not easy, we all need healing and we all have the right to look to a brighter future.
This weeklong exhibit and the presentation today have already served their purpose – Holocaust awareness. It was not smooth sailing organizing this event. The Holocaust is a very sensitive subject and everyone has their views on how to approach Holocaust education. I am very moved by the outpouring of support from participating organizations in our very diverse community. May this be an example of collaboration, tolerance, compassion and love towards our ultimate goal: peace on this campus, in our community and around the world.
Traditionally, during Holocaust commemorations, six memorial candles are lit to represent the six million Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust. Today, we have chosen to light seven memorial candles, to be lit by UVic students representing various communities and causes, with our seventh candle symbolizing our hope. Performing “Mi Ha’Ish” is post-doctoral fellow Dr. Orly Salama-Alber, accompanied by Hannah Faber, the volunteer coordinator of UVic’s Jewish Students Association, and the same song that has been incorporated into our gift to Dawn Smith, who performed the First Nations acknowledgement earlier. In English, the lyrics read: “Who desires life, loving each day to see good? Then guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:12-4)
Our first candle will be lit by undergraduate students Shelly Selivanov, Paige Gelfer and Anat Kelerstein and master’s student Keenan Anthony, grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, and they will be lighting on behalf of the six million Jews who perished in the Shoah.
Our second candle will be lit by I-witness Field School student Cheryl Noon and history graduate student Kaitlin Findlay on behalf of all other persecuted victims of the Holocaust.
Our third candle will be lit by international students Moe Ezzine and Abbie Urquia, who are members of the African Awareness Club, on behalf of all the victims of genocide, including, but not limited to, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, the Ukrainian genocide and, more recently, the Syrian genocide.
Our fourth candle will be lit by student advocates Lane Foster and Maks Zouboules from the Sexualized Violence Task Force on behalf of all victims of sexualized violence on and off campus.
Our fifth candle will be lit by undergraduate student Nicola Craig Hora and graduate student Lauren Thompson, who are co-designing a teaching unit on the Holocaust for high school students, on behalf of all the children whose lives were cut short and were robbed of their bright futures.
Our sixth candle will be lit by members of the Indigenous Law Students Association, Thomas Laboucan-Avirom and Rachelle Trenholm, on behalf of all victims of residential schools and Japanese internment camps here in Canada.
Our seventh and final candle, our candle of hope, will be lit by Multifaith Services work-study students Olivia Bos and Gabriela Turla, on behalf of all humanity, regardless of their race, religion, creed and sexual orientation.
On stage, between the candles is our broken window. This window is shattered and represents Kristallnacht, the night of Nov. 9, 1938, on which a massive coordinated attack on Jews occurred and swept across Europe, marking the beginning of the Holocaust. This night is otherwise known as the Night of Broken Glass. Throughout this presentation, we will be reclaiming the broken pieces of glass and rebuilding this very window in a communal act of resilience.
The eight window pieces were placed by members or representatives of the following groups: 1) First Nations community; 2) UVic Multifaith Services; 3) Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island; 4) UVic Holocaust educators; 5) Campus Security; 6) student leaders (Jewish Students Association, Indigenous Law Students Association, History Undergraduate Society, Multifaith Services work-study students, Germanic and Slavic studies students, I-witness Field School students, and student advocates from African Awareness Club and Sexualized Violence Task Force); 7) UVic administration (Equity and Human Rights Office); and 8) children of Holocaust survivors and members of the Kristallnacht planning committee.
It takes a community to overcome trauma and rebuild a peaceful future. It also takes a community to prevent trauma from happening in the first place.
Carmel Tanaka is the Hillel BC director at the University of Victoria, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and an advocate for Holocaust awareness.
Living at the Victoria Hillel House has provided Hannah Faber a space to engage with her Jewish identity in a holistic way. (photo from Hannah Faber)
When I decided to move to Victoria to finish my undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria, I was told by a longtime friend to look into the Victoria Hillel House as a place to live. At first, I was cautious because I had not been very active at the Hillel of my last university. Following that friend’s advice has turned out to be one of the most transformative experiences I have ever had. Living at the Hillel House has given me so many opportunities to be a part of the Jewish community, which has irrevocably changed my sense of Jewish identity.
Within the first week of moving to Victoria as a transfer student, I was asked by the Hillel director to volunteer at a lot of community events. There were two things that struck me deeply and had me admiring the local Jewish community. The first was how small it was and, therefore, how everything within it was such a labor of love. The second was how much older most people at community events were and how much they wanted young people to become involved. Even though I grew up in a relatively small Jewish community in Calgary, the question of whether or not young people would commit and engage in the Jewish community did not seem nearly as urgent as it does in Victoria. Victoria Jewry is made up of mostly older people who have dedicated their lives to the community and are looking for people to carry the torch.
My ability to get involved with the kehilah is in part because I am a resident of the Victoria Hillel House. Living in the Hillel House has provided me a space to engage with my Jewish identity in a holistic way, to explore its many facets and intricacies. The space created is based on values like hospitality, generosity, tikkun olam, as well as inclusive and compassionate listening. I can ask questions about the intersections of feminism and Judaism in my life, and how social justice could be directly informed by my Jewish identity. It is a place where I have explored pertinent questions relating to my Jewish identity with other young Jews, been surrounded by Jewish culture, met members of the Jewish community outside of the university, as well as faculty, and done that all within the Jewish tradition of sitting down to a nice meal.
Hillel House has been a place for me to feel a sense of pride in my identity as a person who is part of a greater shared history. It is rare for one to find a place that validates oneself and simultaneously allows for personal growth. The Victoria Hillel House has done just that. It has played an integral part in allowing me to come into my Jewish identity and, for that, I am very grateful.
Hannah Faberis a Victoria Hillel House tenant, as well as the volunteer coordinator of the Jewish Students Association and an undergraduate studying theatre at the University of Victoria.